10th Anniversary of Earth Day
By Gaylord Nelson
Ten years ago this month, the environmental issue came of age in
American political life. When April 22, 1970, dawned, literally millions
of Americans of all ages and from all walks of life participated in Earth
Day celebrations from coast to coast.
It was on that day that Americans made it clear that they understood
and were deeply concerned over the deterioration of our environment and
the mindless dissipation of our resources. That day left a permanent
impact on the politics of America. It forcibly thrust the issue of
environmental quality and resources conservation into the political
dialogue of the Nation. That was the important objective and achievement
of Earth Day. It showed the political and opinion leadership of the
country that the people cared, that they were ready for political action,
that the politicians had better get ready, too. In short, Earth Day
launched the Environmental decade with a bang.
Now, ten years later, it has become popular in some circles to write
the obituary of the environmental movement, to refer to the passing of the
"golden era" for environmentalism. It is asserted that public
interest has waned, that new worries have captured attention, that
inflation, the energy crisis, and international conflict have superseded
if not wiped out public concern over environmentalism.
Those who write that view are uninformed and far removed from the
environmental scene or the politics surrounding it. In fact, the politics
of environmentalism are so pervasive, from the grass roots to the national
capital, that it is hard to believe even the most casual observer could
miss it. To anyone who has paid attention, it is clear that the
environmental movement now is far stronger, far better led, far better
informed, and far more influential than it was ten years ago. Its strength
grows each year because public knowledge and understanding grow each year.
How Did Earth Day 1970 Change the Nation?
My primary objective in planning Earth Day was to show the political
leadership of the Nation that there was broad and deep support for the
environmental movement. While I was confident that a nationwide peaceful
demonstration of concern would be impressive, I was not quite prepared for
the overwhelming response that occurred on that day. Two thousand colleges
and universities, ten thousand high schools and grade schools, and several
thousand communities in all, more than twenty million Americans
participated in one of the most exciting and significant grassroots
efforts in the history of this country.
Earth Day 1970 made it clear that we could summon the public support,
the energy, and commitment to save our environment. And while the struggle
is far from over, we have made substantial progress. In the ten years
since 1970 much of the basic legislation needed to protect the environment
has been enacted into law: the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality
Improvement Act, the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments, the
Resource Recovery Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the
Toxic Substances Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the
Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Endangered Species Act,
the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act,
and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. And, the most
important piece of environmental legislation in our history, the National
Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law on January 1, 1970.
NEPA came about in response to the same public pressure which later
produced Earth Day.
As the Council on Environmental quality's retrospective introduction to
their tenth annual report states:
In some ways, NEPA may turn out to be the most influential of our
environmental laws for it not only sets forth our basic national goals
for environmental protection, but it also tells us that essential to
achieving them is foresight.
There have been other accomplishments. Today, almost every State has
one or more agencies charged with protecting its environment and natural
resources. Nearly 150 universities and colleges have programs for
environmental education. As of Dec. 30, 1979, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency had made grants of $24.9 billion for municipal
wastewater treatment projects. Firms making equipment used to clean up air
and water pollution had sales of $1.8 billion in 1977 and are growing
about twice as fast as the rest of U.S. industry.
It ought to be remembered that there are huge costs involved in the
maintenance of the status quo, even though they do not show up on
corporate balance sheets. A recent study conducted for the Environmental
Protection Agency estimates that air pollution alone results in deaths
costing the Nation $5 billion to $16 billion a year and disease costing
about $36 billion a year. Efforts to clean up air, land, and water have
yielded all of us inestimable benefits and will continue to do so. The
National Wildlife Federation sums up the importance of the first
The Environmental Revolution has altered our physical surroundings.
Beyond that, it has worked remarkable changes in government, law,
politics and economics. It has reshaped many people's philosophy of life
and scale of values. In very practical terms, the Environmental
Revolution is lengthening lives and lessening human misery by reducing
the poisons in our air, water, and soil. Perhaps most importantly of all
in a way not too many people have noted, the Environmental Revolution
has revitalized the democratic process.
What has happened to the Great Lakes is an excellent illustration of
what has been accomplished in the first decade of national concern for the
In 1970, scientists told us that Lake Erie was dying and that the other
Great Lakes were threatened by pollution from the steel plants, oil
refineries, paper mills, and city sewage plants which for the previous one
hundred years had befouled the world's largest fresh water system.
By 1980, the lakes had won a stay of execution, thanks to an
international effort. In two Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements, the
first in 1972 and the second in 1978, the U.S. and Canada solemnly agreed
to begin the arduous process of cleansing the lakes. And that process has
begun. Federal legislation, notably the Clean Water Act, has provided us
with the means to assess and abate new threats to the Great Lakes
The result is that substantial progress has been made in controlling
pollution entering the lakes from industrial and municipal point sources.
Phosphorus levels, which once threatened the lakes with death by
eutrophication, are beginning to decline. DDT is leaving the Great Lakes
food chain faster than expected. However, as we approach a resolution of
these old problems, new ones are identified to take their places. Within
the realm of toxic contaminants, we have had to shift our focus from DDT
to PCBs. Our main pollution control and abatement concern has become urban
runoff and atmospheric fallout, as the existing environmental laws have
progressively reduced emissions from point sources.
The lesson of the Great Lakes in the 1970s is this in less than 200
years, in less time than America has been a Nation, a brief moment in
terms of man's life on this planet, significant adverse changes in the
Lakes' water quality have occurred. The responsibility for these changes
rests solely with man. In the 1970s, a sufficiently large and dispersed
group of people recognized the fragility and finite nature of the Earth's
ecosystem, understood that "everything is connected to everything
else," and accepted the responsibility not only to set straight the
mistakes of the past but to avoid repeating them in the future.
So long as the human species inhabits the Earth, proper management of
its resources will be the most fundamental issue we face. Our very
survival will depend upon whether or not we are able to preserve, protect
and defend our environment. We are not free to decide about whether or not
our environment "matters." It does matter, apart from any
political exigencies. We disregard the needs of our ecosystem at our
That was the great lesson of Earth Day. It must never be forgotten.
[Editor's note: On April 22, 1980, the world
celebrated the 10th annual Earth
Day. This article, originally entitled "Earth Day '70: What It
Meant" by one of the Earth Day founders (Senator Gaylord Nelson)
first appeared in the EPA Journal in April, 1980. Special thanks to
both the EPA and Senator Nelson.]